Every spring since she was 18 months old, my daughter, Sabrina, has planted a sunflower seed in our rose garden. After carefully burying the seed and watering it, she checks every few days for signs of growth. In a week or so, to her delight, a tiny seedling emerges. Before long, the sunflower grows to half her size, and almost before our eyes it shoots skyward, eventually reaching 9 or 10 feet tall.
Today, at 5 years old, Sabrina is an old pro in the garden.
She enjoys teaching her 2-year-old twin brothers how to garden and often surprises me with her keen insight and observation. This winter, as the sugar snap peas she planted from seed twined up their trellis, she told me they would soon be flowering. I was skeptical but pleasantly surprised four days later when the plant blossomed.
I introduced Sabrina to the garden because I wanted to share my passion. In the process, I found that the experience has given her a number of benefits, including patience, a sense of accomplishment, the ability to plan, respect for the environment and a nurturing spirit.
Gardening is a great family activity that can be done right in your own backyard with just a few supplies. You don’t need a lot of space for a kids garden or even land.
A child can grow flowers and vegetables in a container. Depending on the activities, you can start as young as 18 months, although kids become more adept at planting and other garden chores by age 3.
“Gardening gets children outdoors away from the TV set and opens their eyes to the wonders of nature,” said Dena Tice, a Diamond Bar master gardener and kindergarten teacher, who will be teaching a children’s gardening workshop at the Fullerton Arboretum on April 5, at 10 a.m. (Information:  773-3404.)
“By planting a seed, nurturing the resulting plant and watching it grow and mature, children learn about the cycle of life and how they are a part of it,” Tice said.
Gardening can be a great learning experience, agreed Susie Usrey, a spokeswoman at Monrovia Nursery, a wholesaler in Azusa that sells to nurseries throughout Orange County. Usrey regularly gardens with her 5-year-old grandson.
“In the garden, kids learn to nurture and get a sense of accomplishment and confidence when their plants grow,” she said. “They learn that good things take time.”
Gardening is rarely a hard sell with kids, Usrey said. “Children love to be in the elements. Dirt, water, earthworms, insects, rain and wind are magnets for them.”
For a successful gardening experience with your child, keep the following tips in mind:
* Designate a special gardening area just for your child. Depending on his or her age and the space available, this could be a small plot in the garden or a large container.
“Whatever space you provide your child, it’s important that it’s always accessible,” suggested master gardener Mary Ann Mealey, who is one of the original docents at Centennial Farm in Costa Mesa. She is also putting in and overseeing children’s gardens at two Tustin elementary schools with funding from federal and state grants.
“Letting them go out and check on their plants whenever they want keeps them enthused and connected to what’s going on in the garden,” Mealey said.
* Encourage children to choose what they want to grow. Take a trip to the nursery or browse through catalogs and let your child pick out what you’ll plant.
There are many vegetables with cute names, including miniature carrots like Thumbelina, which are shaped like golf balls; Easter Egg radishes, which come in red, white, purple and rose; Jack Be Little pumpkins that fit in small hands; blue popcorn; and peanuts.
Kids also enjoy growing edible flowers like nasturtiums and violas. And berries like strawberries, grapes and raspberries are always a hit. The variety Rubus idaeus (“Canby Red”) is a good thornless raspberry for this area.
* Break gardening tasks down into bite-sized pieces appropriate for young attention spans. If you bought eight plants at the nursery, start the first day by planting just two of them. Likewise, begin by planting just one or two seed packets.
* Choose a good mix of plants. Grow a variety, including those that bear quickly and those that take some time.
For a quick crop, try radishes and lettuce, which can be eaten within 20 to 40 days of planting. Also look for large seeds such as peas, beans, melons and pumpkins, which usually sprout quickly. And don’t forget to mix in those plants that are popular, even though they take longer to grow, such as carrots, popcorn and peanuts.
* Don’t exclude very young gardeners. If kids can walk and play with toys, they’re old enough to work in the garden, even if it’s simply filling pots with soil or digging holes. For added interest, put activities nearby such as a sandbox or easel for drawing pictures of the garden.
* Use gardening as a teaching tool. With children 5 and up, use the opportunity for mini-botany and geography lessons. Discuss where plants originally came from and their preferred growing conditions. Children also learn a lot by studying insects and plants with a magnifying glass.
* Give your garden kid appeal. Make your garden a magical place that children don’t want to leave.
There are a variety of garden accessories that can make the garden a fun place to be. These include small ceramic animals, child-sized stepping stones, small chairs, hammocks, fountains, ponds, birdhouses, wind chimes, garden globes, sundials, flags, decorative plant markers, birdbaths, toad houses and water spigot handles in the shape of animals and cartoon characters.
Place some of the items in hard-to-reach, out-of-the way corners of the yard that only kids can reach.
* Make secret hideaways. There are a lot of things you can do with plants to create small hide-outs. Two fun projects are a sunflower house and bean tepee.
To make a sunflower house, plant mammoth sunflowers 8 to 10 inches apart in a circle that is 4 to 5 feet in diameter. Once the sunflowers have grown a foot, plant beans at the base of the sunflowers. This will create a special kid-size hideaway.
Bean tepees also cause squeals of delight. To make, insert a 10-foot pole (steel or plastic) 18 inches deep in the soil and firm soil around it. Then insert at least four 10-foot bamboo poles or other skinny wooden sticks 4 1/2 feet out from the base of center pole and tie their tops together 6 to 12 inches below the top of the center pole.
Plant pole beans or scarlet runner beans an inch deep and 1 to 3 inches apart in a circle just outside of the poles. When the vines grow, train them up the outside of the tepee to make a shady retreat. For a more permanent structure, plant a vine such as honeysuckle.
* Create a theme garden. Plant a pizza garden or an ABC garden, or grow things that are very fragrant. Good additions to a fragrant garden include rosemary, scented geraniums, scented basil, honeysuckle, jasmine, wisteria, citrus, mint, lilac and lavender. Or add plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies like buddleias, fuchsias and various sages.
* Provide small children with plastic bottles that they can fill with water and use for their own cut flowers.
* Look for fun projects for your harvests. If you’ve grown a lot of flowers or herbs, try drying them for arrangements or making potpourri.
* Remember that things won’t be perfect. “It doesn’t matter if they pull something up at the wrong time; that’s how they learn,” Mealey said. “Things may get planted a little crooked, but that’s what gives a child’s garden so much charm.”
* Ask for their ideas. You’ll be surprised at the creative ideas children have for dealing with problems in the garden. When we went to the beach last summer, my daughter collected buckets full of shells and informed me, “These are for the garden. They’re pretty and they’ll stop the weeds from growing.”
Today those shells are spread throughout the garden. Sabrina was right. They are pretty. And I think they actually help keep weeds to a minimum.
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Where to Find Seeds for Kids Where to find kid-friendly vegetable and flower seeds:
Many local nurseries carry a variety of plants and seeds that children enjoy growing. For even more options, call for the following free catalogs:
* Burpee, (800) 888-1447.
* Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co., (605) 665-1930.
* Park Seed, (864) 223-7333.
* Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, (860) 482-3638.
* Stokes Seeds, (716) 695-6980.